Notes from the Old Noank Jail: The guns of Long Island Sound

Some folks may remember a popular film from the 1960s called “The Guns of Navarone,” apparently originating from a novel loosely based on World War II battles near the Greek island of Leros.

The two huge, deadly, land-based fictional weapons depicted in that film may have been patterned after the massive 15-inch guns aboard the German Battleship “Bismarck” or similar large railroad-car mounted guns from that period. But there actually were similar, earlier, large shore-based guns built and installed here in the U.S. during the 1900s.

At a meeting of the Noank Historical Society on March 20, local historian Robert Suppicich gave a history, with photos and vintage film footage, of five coastal artillery forts that were established at the mouth of Long Island Sound, four of them actually equipped with heavy armament. This was during the Spanish-American War, prior to World War I, with the U.S. military’s objective to prevent enemy warships from entering Long Island Sound and thus help protect New York City from attack.

The five locations included Fort Mansfield on Napatree Point, R.I., Fort H.G. Wright on Fishers Island, N.Y., Fort Michie on Great Gull Island, N.Y., Fort Terry on Plum Island, N.Y., and Fort Tyler on Gardiner’s Point Island, N.Y.. Fort Tyler never actually received any armament due to the Spanish-American War being suddenly concluded and high storm water causing sand erosion along with damage to the facility.

Forts Mansfield, Wright, Michie and Terry all did receive armaments during 1898. Generally, these consisted of 12-inch mortars along with some large 12-, 10-, 8- or 6-inch bore “disappearing” guns and a variety of 6-, 5- and 3-inch bore pedestal-mounted guns. Enemy warships of that period were constructed with heavy metal sides but only wooden decking, which gave mortars with high trajectory the capability to lob heavy shells designed to smash through the wooden decks and explode in the process, thus causing more effective internal ship damage.

The heavy “disappearing” guns were mounted on counter-weighted fulcrums and were “breech” loaded at the rear. Each gun-crew of 24 would open the breech, ram-insert the projectile, followed by a powder charge, close the breech, swing up the gun above the parapet, then aim and fire at the enemy target.

The recoil would automatically cause the gun to swing back down below the parapet and not be visible to the enemy during reloading. In the films, some of the gun barrels appeared to be almost 20 feet in length. The firing range of this type of weapon was apparently over 20 miles.

The Spanish-American War lasted only a short time during 1898, from April to August, primarily due to the decisive American victories fought elsewhere.

Suppicich recounted relevant history on those battles, also indicating that the famous explosion aboard the battleship Maine may have been caused by an internal problem and not by enemy action. He also advised that Spain “retired” from the war under a “protocol of peace” to save face, as Spain had actually run out of money to finance their war effort. They had underestimated the determination of the American forces.

The armament for the four remaining Long Island Sound forts was completed, but the Fort Mansfield emplacement was found to have a serious design flaw. The guns could not produce effective defensive fire for an enemy attack approaching from the east, close to the Rhode Island shore, a visual “blind” spot from Napatree Point.

So, Fort Mansfield was deactivated by 1907, but some emplacement structures still remained, as friends showed me back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Forts Wright, Terry and Michie remained operational with improvements, including 16-inch guns at Wright and Michie, through both World Wars until 1946, after which the facilities were used for other purposes.

Plum Island itself became a restricted animal disease research location in 1952 and then from 2000 to 2016 was up for sale. Recently, there have been legal efforts to restrict any such sale.

As he closed his program at the NHS, Suppicich listed the names of seven Noank men who were in the process of going to fight in the Spanish-American War before it ended. His list of these Veterans included: William Chadwick, apparently buried in Noank Valley Cemetery; his brother James Chadwick; Herbert Bunnel; George Lamb; John Bentley; Roderick Campbell, and Walter H. Wolverton, whose grave I personally found in the cemetery, which states he died in 1946. May they all continue to rest in peace.

Ed Johnson lives in Noank.

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